A Dugong Bone Mound: The Neolithic Ritual Site on Akab in Umm Al-Quwain, United Arab Emirates

By Mery, Sophie; Charpentier, V. et al. | Antiquity, September 2009 | Go to article overview

A Dugong Bone Mound: The Neolithic Ritual Site on Akab in Umm Al-Quwain, United Arab Emirates


Mery, Sophie, Charpentier, V., Auxiette, G., Pelle, E., Antiquity


Introduction

The Neolithic period in the Oman Peninsula and the Gulf is relatively unexplored. Excavations remain rare, with 20 sites, at most, explored between Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman. In eastern Arabia in general, the emergence, identity and chronology of the first Neolithic societies are still to be determined. We know that between 6500 and 4500 cal BC, despite the absence of agriculture, a fully Neolithic culture developed in the United Arab Emirates, in the Sultanate of Oman and in Yemen, for which pressure-retouched trihedral points are a distinctive feature, together with the domestication of ovicaprids. In the Gulf, pottery provides evidence for long-distance trade with the Ubaid populations of southern Mesopotamia. In the United Arab Emirates, many coastal occupations of the sixth--fifth millennia have been reported, but only those of Marawah, Dalma and Akab have been excavated (Figure 1).

At present, the fourth millennium appears to be under-represented in the United Arab Emirates, to the point that some have referred to a 'dark millennium' (Uerpmann 2003). Only the site of Akab has so far produced evidence of this period, which characterises the end of the Neolithic, although the period is better known on the Indian Ocean side, on the coast of the Sultanate of Oman. The beginnings of the Bronze Age, characterised by the appearance of oases based on the exploitation of the date palm and the local development of pottery, dates to 3100 cal BC.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

To date, the archaeology of the Arabian Peninsula has produced very little data on the beliefs and ritual practices which preceded Islam. Two Bronze Age temples were discovered on the island of Bahrain (Barbar and Saar), vestiges of the Dilmun civilisation of the third and second millennia BC. On the Oman Peninsula, no known sanctuary of the Bronze (3100-1500 BC) exists and it is not until the Iron Age, in the first millennium BC, that religious practices related to snakes appear.

The discovery of a Neolithic dugong bone mound at Umm al-Quwain on the island of Akab (Figure 1) now provides new evidence concerning the rituals practised by coastal societies of the Gulf in the fourth millennium. Thus far, these rituals have only been perceptible through funerary practices, in particular those in evidence in the necropolis of Ra's al-Hamra (Sultanate of Oman) (Salvatori 2007).

The fishermen of Akab

Deserted today, the island of Akab is located 190km from Abu Dhabi in the large lagoon of Umm al-Quwain (United Arab Emirates). The archaeological site, investigated by a palaeontologist at the beginning of the 1990s, was interpreted as a butchering area for dugongs, and therefore suggested to be the oldest known site of dugong hunting (Prieur & Guerin 1991; Jousse 1999; Jousse et al. 2002). The dugong (Dugong dugon), an herbivorous marine mammal which lives along the coast of the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific (Figure 2), is found today in the Arabian Gulf (Preen 2004); it is now protected and the United Arab Emirates plays a major role in its conservation (Das 2007). In adulthood the dugong measures up to 3-4m long and can weigh as much as 400kg. The ethnographic records of the Indo-Pacific zone indicate that for a given coastal society the number of dugongs captured is important (Haddon 1904-1912; Petit 1927; Marsh et al. 2002; McNiven & Bedingfield 2008). There are no published records of mass strandings of dugong, although individual strandings or dugongs being carried ashore during cyclones have been reported (Bryden et al. 1998).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The flesh, oil, hide and tusks of the dugong were long exploited in the region and the consumption of dugongs has been confirmed on many archaeological sites. Evidence for dugong hunting has been found from the sixth-fifth millennia, in the coastal occupations of Marawah MR11, Dalma DA11, Akab and Jezirat al-Hamra JH. …

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